It's not illegal for a member of Congress to create a charity, raise funds for it and then hand out checks to deserving causes, usually in his or her district or state. Many high-profile politicians such as Rep. Tom Delay, Sen. Bill Frist, Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Stevens have such charities. But not everybody thinks they are as benign as they appear. In March Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., proposed a set of limits on how members of Congress use their own charities, but his amendment never got out of the Senate Finance Committee.
What could possibly be wrong with a congressman or senator having "another strategy for public service," as Steve Gunderson, president of the Council on Foundations, describes such charities? While these charities often do noble work, they can serve an ignoble purpose when they are too closely connected to a politician's political activities. Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, points out that these charities often become conduits for cash from and face-time with lobbyists.